Cutbacks making rural GP practices ‘unviable’

More rural and deprived urban areas will be left without doctors in the coming years because Government cutbacks are making GP practices unviable, the Irish Medical Organisation has warned.

Cuts of 38% in the medical card scheme allowances have slashed resources to general practice by more than €160m, said the IMO.

There are vacancies in upwards of 30 areas, the latest being in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, where there have been no applications for a post from which a doctor is retiring and emigrating to Britain .

Dr Ray Walley, IMO GP chair, yesterday said cuts were having a disproportionate effect on rural practices, which were now not attractive financially and which did not have necessary supports.

“The responsibilities are onerous and there are insufficient supports to allow GPs to deliver a safe and quality service to patients,” he said.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to find GPs to take on practices in urban locations because of the lack of resources but nigh-on impossible, with current Government policy, to see how general practice can survive in rural and isolated areas.”

Kerry County Council chairman and Ballyheigue pharmacist John Brassil (FF) said the GP in the area with a 2,500-population could no longer operate his business because of cuts.

With Dr Gerry Quill due to retire on March 31, Ballyheigue, an attractive seaside resort, will be left without a permanent, resident GP for the first time in living memory. Dr Quill had 1,200 medical card patients in addition to private patients.

“The closing date for applications was last week. I had expected two or three people would be interested, but there wasn’t a single application,” Mr Brassil told RTÉ radio.

“GPs are not willing to work in present circumstances in 30 towns around the country and, if the posts are not properly funded, difficulties will continue to grow.’’

Cork South Central TD Jerry Buttimer (FG) acknowledged difficulties in supplying GPs to rural areas, adding that funding was being increased (nationally) for health services this year.

A sum of €2.5m was being provided for primary care reimbursement, more doctors were in training, and 42 new primary care centres had been opened, he said.

Mr Buttimer said there would be no further cuts in health, for which the budget had been increased this year. “We’ve seen an increase of 27% in the number of doctors registered in the country, but we must try to incentivise GPs to go to places like Ballyheigue.”

Dr Gary Stack, Killarney, strongly disagreed with Mr Buttimer. “It’s like saying, ‘We’ve kicked you to death, but we’ll stop now.’ The damage has already been done,” he said.

Medical unions and organisations have been predicting a crisis in GP services for a number of years. Dr Stack said the situation had reached crisis point in both rural and deprived urban areas. “It’s very hard to see anyone being able to make a living and provide a service in these remote areas.”

Meanwhile, the HSE is expected to re-advertise the Ballyheigue post and to appoint a temporary replacement doctor.

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